Simon Ortiz’s “Starting at the Bottom”

I’ve finished reading Simon Ortiz’s Woven Stone, though I’ll have to admit that I was so angry and so depressed by the last section entitled “No More Sacrifices,” an interesting combination of essay and poems, almost haibun, that I had to take frequent breaks to finish the book. However, those concerned with the plight of the American Indian or the plight of all workers at the bottom of our capitalist system it’s an enlightening read.

I don’t think that “Starting at the Bottom” is necessarily the best poem in the last part of the book, but it touches on several of Ortiz’s major themes.

Starting at the Bottom

The truth is,
most of us didn’t know
much about the unions
at any rate.
A job was a job.
You were lucky to have one
if you got one.
The truth is,
the companies didn’t much care
nor did the unions,
even if both of them
were working our land.
When the mines came
to the Laguna and Acoma land,
the men and their families were glad
in a way because
the men wouldn’t have to go so far away to work
for the railroad in Barstow,
Richmond, Flagstaff, Needles.
Or to pick beets and onions
in Idaho, Utah, and Colorado.
Or work for the Mormons
in Bluewater Valley
who paid you in carrots and potatoes.

When Jackpile opened up
on Laguna land, some Laguna men got on alright,
at the bottom.
You have to start at the bottom, personnel said,
for a training period and work your way up.
The Acoma men went to the Ambrosia Lake mines
and always got stuck by the space on the application forms
for previous mining experience,
but the mine steward explained,
you have to start at the bottom and work your way up.

So, almost thirty years later,
the Acoma men
were at the bottom of the underground mines at Ambrosia Lake,
and the Laguna men were at the bottom of the open pit at Jackpile,
they were still training, gaining experience, and working their way up.

And weekends, that city jail
was still full.

“Starting at the Bottom,” or, more precisely, living on the bottom is a theme throughout Ortiz’s book. His tribe, his family and he have struggled to survive in modern times, and Ortiz reveals many of the less obvious reasons why this is true. The arrival of industry, from the early trains to the later Uranium mines, has siphoned vital water away from Indian land, making it nearly difficult to even grow subsistence crops. As a result, the men had to take jobs further and further away from the land, creating a whole new set of problems.

I’m sure the mining companies would offer “valid” reasons why the Indians end up in dead-end jobs, but exploiting cheap labor seems to be the real business of mining companies. While reading the last section of Ortiz’s collection, I happened to receive this from PROPUBLICA:

If you don’t have to pay the fine for having an unsafe workplace, why provide a safe workplace? Thousands of mines are operating despite owing safety penalties that go back as far as 20 years, according to an NPR investigation. In their years of delinquency, these mines reported injury rates 50 percent higher than mines that paid penalties. In a joint investigation, NPR and Mine Safety and Health News report that federal regulators are either unable or unwilling to get these owners to pay up. “Coal mine regulation is not a high-profile area of law enforcement. … It’s a fairly low priority,” said one former assistant U.S. attorney. — NPR via @AnnaBoikoW

It’s hard to dig your way out of your problems when you’re at the bottom of a pit, so it’s not surprising that their frustration and despair causes them to end up in the city jail on weekends.